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Cultivating the “high art” of friendship


Two old men, long-time friends, were in a bar.

 One said, “Do you love me?” The other answered, “Of course I love you.”

 The first man said, “Then why don’t you know where I hurt?”

There are a few ways you could go with this story. I think of it as a gentle reminder about the importance of being a friend; an encouragement to seek out and cultivate the “high art” of real friendship.

Life moves so fast. We stay so busy. It’s sometimes easy to neglect the investment in time, attention, commitment and openness involved in being a true friend.

One good thing about the holidays is they give us a break in the routine, a time that feels right for renewing old friendships, going deeper with the ones we have, or even making new ones.

So what is a friend? Elbert Hubbard said

“A friend is a person who knows all about you—and still likes you.”

With all the noise of life, with all the games we people play, friendship gives us a quiet touch-point with reality, a place where we can be our old, ornery selves, let it all hang out, tell each other the stories of our lives, share laughter and tears.

It’s a place where two friends can be honest with each other and also say to each other: “I will always be there for you, no questions, no conditions, no expectations. You don’t have to follow my script to be my friend.”

Surely that’s worth looking for, stretching ourselves for, and cultivating.

And when tough times come…what a comfort if we have at least one or two who will come from the ends of the earth, as we would for them.

A Passion for Yes


“If life is a question, would your answer be Yes or No?”

Many years ago, Esquire magazine posed this question to a number of thinkers.

The playwright Samuel Beckett responded:

“My answer is no. Life is awful. Grimace and bear it.”

The writer Isaac Bashevis Singer responded:

“My answer is yes. Life is God’s novel. Help him write it.”

Thinking about these quotes led me to reflect: what does it really mean to live a life based on No, or live a life based on Yes? And which one am I doing?

I think it is probably easier to base your life on a No. It’s easier to just be against bad stuff than it is to be for something.

It’s easier to just get angry and upset by all the problems than it is to light a candle and quietly go to work trying to make a joyful, caring, wise difference in your corner of the world.

And then there’s this; the poet Wallace Stevens wrote:

“Under every No lies a passion for Yes that has never been broken.”

Don’t we sense the truth of this? Isn’t there something in us that really wants to say YES in spite of all the problems?

Don’t we want to live with a thoughtful, loving, joyful YES etched in our souls?

Don’t we want people around us to sense the strong but quiet YES coursing through our veins—even on routine or difficult days?

Don’t we want our children to see the YES dancing in our eyes?

Don’t we want to have a YES inside that is big enough to take on all defeats, disappointments, and difficulties? Bigger than any success or failure?

Don’t we want a YES that’s big enough to forgive and be forgiven?

Don’t we want a YES that is as big as life, even bigger than death?

Don’t we want to be people of YES?


What do we do now?


Have you ever been hit by the 3Ds? I’m talking about: Defeat. Disappointment. Disillusionment.

When they hit, life can feel like a Salvador Dali painting where what we thought was solid and reliable can no longer be trusted…where what should be up is down and what should be down is up.

At times like these, it’s easy to become a great big Cynic—automatically distrustful.

But that’s the problem with cynicism. It’s too easy. We don’t have to think very hard. Not much stretching involved.

Plus, it’s difficult to see how investing in cynicism can help us make the world better, or make our lives better, or make our relationships better.

Cynicism is circling the wagons, shrinking our world.

But what if we used defeat, disappointment and disillusion—painful as they are— to open up and expand our world? How would we do that?

We might start by asking again, in a fresh new way: what really matters? What makes life worthwhile?

When so much has been taken away, what do we most need to hold on to?

 When life seems out of focus, what do we most focus on?

 The famed cellist Pablo Casals said:

“I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.”

He’s saying: Here is one thing we can hold on to—through all of life’s ups and downs—that will help make life meaningful.

And it may be that defeat, disappointment and disillusionment can even help us to expand our capacity to care—deeply and genuinely—about the people around us, at home, at work, in our community, in the world.

A song from Jackson Browne has these challenging lyrics:

“Oh people look around you, the signs are everywhere; you’ve left it to someone other than you to be the one to care.”

Clearly, we all fall short on the idea of caring genuinely about every person without exception. I certainly do.

But I still believe it’s an ideal worth stretching for, reaching up to every day, especially in dark times. Especially in dark times!

When he was in his 90s, Pablo Casals would still get up every day and, with arthritic hands, practice playing his cello, starting with the scales.

So here’s one thing we can do now: get up every day and practice being the one to care.

A poet’s “pop quiz” on daily life


What would it be like to think like a poet about your life? And would that add anything of value?

Robert Frost gave us a peek into his thinking process when he said:

“What is required is sight and insight—then you might add one more: excite.”

So here is Frost’s “pop quiz” on daily life.

  1. What did I see today?

Did I actually see it? Did I slow down and at least try to see some of the people and problems and situations I faced today as if seeing them for the first…or last…time?

  1. What insight did I gain today?

 Yes, it’s tempting to judge people or situations or events by their appearances. Tempting because, well, we’re busy. But today, did I stop at least once or twice to reflect? Did I at least try to look behind the scenes, read between the lines, read the fine print on a situation, a problem, a person? Did I try to understand how it feels to be inside the skin of another person? Did I learn anything new about others, about myself, about the world, about life today?

  1. What excited me today?

 Anything? Did I take a moment today to discover, even if only for a moment, something new, something surprising, something that reawakened my sense of wonder at just being alive in this world?

What did I see? What insight did I gain? What excited me? Not a bad daily pop quiz, is it?

And don’t worry about the grade. The point is simply to have fun with the quiz, to use it as a stretching exercise. Anyone who takes it, and takes it even a little seriously (but not too seriously), gets an A.